Minnows enjoy a qualified success
Published 09/05/2011 | 11:23
OK, OK, so we all know that only a handful of counties can possibly win the All-Ireland this year -- Cork, Kerry, Dublin, Tyrone, Down and maybe Kildare.
That leaves the fans of 27 counties (work that figure out for yourself) who have no chance of testing the new Hill 16 barriers next September. So what are they all going to do as regards supporting their teams for the next five months, supposedly the peak of the GAA season?
Never fear, the GAA always likes to keep in touch with its followers, and their spare cash, and therefore have devised many schemes to make sure that there will be plenty of interest, aggro, controversy and rows about referees among the counties outside the 'Big Six'.
First of all, we have that wonderful provincial system which decrees that there will be four big finals capable of drawing around 150,000 fans in July every year. That's not bad for a start!
Lots of GAA followers have no expectation of their county ever winning an All-Ireland title but many of them aspire to watching their team win a provincial final.
In the past 20 years, some surprising counties have achieved that distinction, such as Clare, Sligo and Westmeath. Fermanagh brought Armagh to a replay of the Ulster final a few years ago but lost their chance of making history through sloppy free-taking.
The most famous dark horse of them all was Leitrim when they beat Mayo in 1994 amid incredible scenes of jubilation -- their previous Connacht success was in 1927.
Mick O'Dwyer brought Kildare and Laois to Leinster titles -- after 40 year-waits -- but these two counties would probably feel insulted if placed in the same category as Leitrim and Clare.
But the possibility of a small county in football terms winning a provincial title is always a big thing to look forward to.
For many GAA followers, the most important games of the summer are those involving their county against their neighbours. Local rivalry is at the very heart of the GAA's success and the tribal instincts engendered by big championship games between so-called friendly neighbours can often save a season for thousands of fans.
The obvious such clashes are ones like Down-Armagh, Tyrone-Derry, Meath-Dublin, Galway-Mayo and Kerry-Cork, but that is mainly because these are usually high-profile counties who aspire to All-Ireland success most years.
Even more interesting are less well-known derby games where the prize at stake is purely the local pride of winning of long-standing tribal battle.
Carlow-Laois is a good example, and so also are Longford-Westmeath and Offaly-Laois, who share an elongated border which always gets the adrenalin running in both counties.
Louth-Meath used to be in that category until Louth took a 40-year sabbatical from serious Leinster football until last year.
For the first 60 years of the last century, Cavan were the team every other Ulster county wanted to beat, such was their domination of the province at that time. Now a game with Monaghan is probably their best bet for that derby passion.
So we can see that the GAA summer is still full of excitement and drama from the highest grades to the lowest.
Of course, the qualifiers have added greatly to the entertainment of the nation and over their 10 years in existence, they have created many major upsets, usually involving counties not from the same province. That is the great attraction of the qualifiers, that weaker counties who may be neighbours but from different provinces can meet in the All-Ireland championship.
It was 125 years before Longford played their neighbours Leitrim in the championship and as long for Leitrim to play against their neighbours Donegal. Yet for all that novelty, it is amazing that so many counties took so long to actually get totally involved in the qualifiers concept.
It was as if the power of the provincial system had overwhelmed them, but things are changing now, and games like Longford's defeat of Down and Mayo have really vindicated the concept of the qualifiers.
It is no longer necessary for a weaker county to actually win a trophy to make substantial progress thanks to the facility the qualifiers offer for many counties to win several championship games in the same season -- even if they fail to win the All-Ireland.
That was a very rare occurrence in the old provincial system. We can all remember the great run Wicklow had a couple of years ago which caught the imagination of the Irish sporting public, and others like Westmeath, Fermanagh and Limerick have had similar qualifiers achievements.
The 'Golden age of Gaelic football' in the 1970s might have been so for Kerry and Dublin, but otherwise it was one of the worst decades in GAA history.
So dominant were the two counties back then that the championships were a joke and there were times when All-Ireland semi-finals had attendances of less than 20,000.
The expansion of football through the qualifiers has changed the face of the game for many counties, even though the downside of that is that the stronger counties are now practically guaranteed to be in the last eight of the All-Ireland every year.
The qualifiers also cause major disruption to the club scene in most parts of Ireland.
But far more county teams will be looking forward to making progress in 2011 than they could have hoped for during most of the GAA's championship history because of the expansion of championship games.
That can only mean more excitement, more upsets along the way and the strong possibility that relatively anonymous players will be thrust into the limelight by virtue of a good run in the qualifiers, or even an unexpected place in a provincial final.
Where would Irish summers be without the GAA games?